Dancing with Politics
SYDNEY FESTIVAL: Led by Michael Keegan-Dolan, Fabulous Beast has become one of the most celebrated and controversial dance companies in the world. The company is returning to Sydney Festival this week with Rian, a collaboration with Irish musician Liam Ó Maonlaí from rock band Hothouse Flowers.
“A year before Rian was conceived, the Irish banking system collapsed and we had to sign a note saying we’d pay it all back to the German and French banks. Basically we signed away our autonomy as a nation. On top of that we discovered that our politicians had been terribly corrupt and careless with all our money. Everything was falling apart and everyone was getting really angry.”
So says Michael Keegan-Dolan, the artistic director of Dublin-based dance company Fabulous Beast, which is coming to Sydney Festival this week with Rian, a collaboration with celebrated Irish musician Liam Ó Maonlaí from rock outfit Hothouse Flowers. Drawing inspiration from Ó Maonlaí’s 2005 solo album Rian – meaning ‘trace’ or ‘mark’ in Irish – the production is a celebration of Ireland’s roots and traditions. Indeed, according to Keegan-Dolan, it is a response to the seismic shifts in Irish society caused by the economic meltdown.
“I had already done my angry phase,” he tells SX. “I was doing my angry phase when everyone else was partying – this is the curse of being an artist. I was slagging-off the boom, saying ‘this is fucked and you’re all going to get fucked if you don’t start paying attention’. So for this, I didn’t want to make a piece about corruption and sick politicians; I wanted to make a piece about how beautiful my country is, and how noble my ancestors were – whether real or imagined. You can change your past by just changing the story, and then suddenly it has a different effect on world.
“So I was like, ‘No! We’re going to focus on the best parts of this culture’. And one of those is music.”
Along with eight dancers from around the world, Ó Maonlaí presents the music from the album – Celtic sounds mixed with elements of West African music – behind a simple deep-green backdrop. Although the dancers are dressed in conventional Irish togs, Keegan-Dolan was influenced by the personalities and styles of the individual dancers, who originate from Kerala, Helsinki, Athens, Nigeria, Denmark and Ireland. Consequently, the choreographic style of Rian holds not only Gaelic, but African and flamenco influences.
“We made the work through creating a space where sincerity and authenticity and integrity were respected, in fact encouraged deeply,” Keegan-Dolan tells. “We started with how the dancers really moved – not how they were taught to move by Mrs Murphy in dance school. It was initially clunky and difficult, but once they got their feet wet the process accelerated and we got to very a interesting point. I began to notice that certain movements began appearing in certain people, and I used those movements to make phrases.
“I also really worked with the energy of joy and the energy of complicity – as in ‘I want to do this.’ I would say, ‘who wants to do this movement?’”
Keegan-Dolan was also driven by “the dualistic nature of the music”. “It’s so authentic and so sincere yet it’s really cheeky and lively and wild,” he muses. “It’s serious but it’s funny in places. It’s light-hearted but it’s terribly sorrowful. It’s old but it’s new. I think interesting things always have a dualistic nature, qualities, properties. Like the woman you look at who’s ugly in one light, and then in another light looks thoroughly beautiful. It’s so interesting – rather than someone who is just beautiful. So the show reflects that quality in the music.”
Founded in 1997, Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast has been hailed has one of the most daring and highly original dance theatre companies in the world. Indeed, Keegan-Dolan won the UK Critics’ Circle Award for Best Modern Choreography for his work with the company in 2008. While he creates productions that have their roots firmly in the Irish experience, he also tackles universal and often controversial social and political issues.
“You can start a revolution with a piece of theatre. I’ll never get funding again if I say this, but it suits the establishment to keep the arts in a very comfortable little place,” Keegan-Dolan says, “because when it’s realised to its fullest and truest potential, the power of the arts is incredible. Look at Michael Jackson: how many millions of people loved him, and how potentially transformative that energy is.
“It’s no coincidence I think that often these incredible artists don’t live very long – and I don’t think it’s only their doing. It suits people of power to keep the artist in a very controllable place because they recognise that the arts is where it begins and ends. It’s powerful and therefore it's dangerous and therefore it needs to be watched.”
[Images] Ros Kavanagh; Frank Elliot
Rian, Theatre Royal, January 17-20, 22-23. Bookings at www.sydneyfestival.org.au.